Combatting ISIS: The case for universal service

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Why do young Canadians join ISIS, and what can be done to prevent this? 

Bill C-51 -- the Harper government's anti-terrorism act -- offers one approach: make it a crime to promote or advocate "terrorism." But a slippery slope leads from criminalizing extremist ideas to criminalizing dissent. Four former Canadian prime ministers, in a statement critical of Bill C-51, point out that "serious human rights abuses can occur in the name of maintaining national security."  

Harper's new legislation could backfire. Characterizing various ideas (including religious extremism) as terrorism might enhance, rather than reduce, the supply of ISIS recruits.

Doug Saunders writes in a Globe and Mail column that "guys who are vulnerable to Islamic State-type ideas… have lost faith in the civil society and institutions around them." He suggests that "keeping people from falling out of faith with civil society is often just a matter of keeping them in school." 

Keeping kids in school is a laudable goal, but not all Canadians who join ISIS are high-school dropouts. 

Governments would do well to consider an additional way to prevent extremism: create opportunities for young people to serve others. This would enable youths who might otherwise join extremist groups to find positive alternatives. More broadly, it would help restore faith in civil society.

In his inaugural speech in 1961, U.S. President John F. Kennedy said, "ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country." Later that year he launched the Peace Corps, with a mission "to promote world peace and friendship." He also proposed a national service corps "to help provide urgently needed services in urban and rural poverty areas." Two years after Kennedy's assassination, Lyndon Johnson launched "Volunteers in Service to America" (now called "AmeriCorps"). 

The Peace Corps and AmeriCorps remain active today.

Canada also had a national service program known as Katimavik. It was started in 1977 by Pierre Trudeau with an aim to "spur lifelong civic engagement through community service." 

The Harper government, in terminating support for Katimavik in 2012, said that funding would be redirected to programs that "benefit large numbers of young people at a reasonable cost rather than concentrating… on a very small number of participants at an excessive per-person cost." But the programs it targeted for continued funding (Encounters with Canada and Forum for Young Canadians) do not involve community service. In both of these programs, youth are given an opportunity to visit Ottawa for a week and meet students from other parts of the country.

Did the Harper government miss the point that Katimavik was not designed solely to benefit young people, but also to give them a chance to serve the wider community? Are Harper Conservatives opposed to voluntary service for ideological reasons?

If you are an unemployed young Canadian and want to serve your country, the only available option to do so is with a gun in your hand. There is also the option to serve ISIS with a gun in your hand (at least, this appears to be what ISIS recruiters are offering). 

How different, fundamentally, are these two options? And are they not mutually reinforcing? 

A government that promotes war, that abandons the concept of serving people in the name of peace and friendship, and that fails to respect and support civil society, paves the way for extremist ideas, violence and terrorism. 

Serving others is intrinsic to all the world's major religions -- Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism and others. Many Canadian non-government organizations (NGOs) -- some with religious ties, others without -- provide opportunities for service in foreign countries (see, for example, this program).

Volunteers must be fed, housed and organized. This requires staff and resources. The Harper government isn't helpful here, either. It eliminated the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), once world-renowned for its aid work in developing nations. Much of CIDA's work was done in partnership with NGOs that offer volunteer opportunities abroad. 

Fortunately, volunteer service is alive and well at the community level within Canada. In 1999, Ontario became the first province to require that high school students do 40 hours of community service before graduating. Other provinces quickly followed suit. The editors of Maclean's wrote an article in 2012 making the case that mandatory community service has been a success, and has not turned kids off to volunteering. They cited a study by Wilfrid Laurier University researchers who concluded that "mandatory service programs increase young people's participation in service activities, and do not reduce their intrinsic interest in volunteering." 

Providing more opportunities to serve others would represent a much-needed positive alternative to the seductive call of ISIS. We need a federal government that recognizes this.

Ole Hendrickson is a forest ecologist and current president of the Ottawa River Institute, a non-profit charitable organization based in the Ottawa Valley.

Photo: Ryan Millar/flickr

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